Taxi Inspectors Say They're Pressured to Make 'Illegal Cab' Seizures
NEW YORK CITY — Two years ago, Alan Kaeckmeister joined the Taxi and Limousine Commission as an inspector in hopes of launching a career in law enforcement and providing a helpful public service.
On Saturday he walked off the job for the last time, disenchanted about what he said was intense pressure from his superiors to issue summonses and seize cars.
“I thought it would be a stepping stone into the NYPD,” Kaeckmeister, 30, told DNAinfo New York. “They made it seem like a law enforcement job. It seems more like a fundraiser for the city.”
Kaeckmeister, and three other TLC enforcement sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that while inspectors are tasked with policing yellow cabs and livery cabs, seizing cars suspected of being illegal taxis has become the main focus.
They said the reason is money.
While illegal cab seizures may be a gold mine for a city — those found guilty must pay a fine of at least $600 — the push is also leading to innocent drivers losing their cars, Kaeckmeister and the other sources said.
“They’re stopping cars without legal justification all the time,” said Kaeckmeister, who in the past year has gone to two tribunal hearings to testify before a judge that his superiors forced him to seize a car when he didn’t have the evidence to do so.
DNAinfo showed the extent of those wrongful seizures in a story on Monday that documented how hundreds of drivers accused of being illegal cabbies were really just driving family, friends or coworkers.
The accused drivers had to go to the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings’ Taxi and Limousine Tribunal to prove their innocence to a judge — and some lost access to their cars for weeks as the vehicles sat in impound lots.
Kaeckmeister said the wrongful seizure of Brooklyn resident Francisco Feliz's car illustrates the TLC's zealous hunt for illegal cabs.
Feliz thought he was being carjacked by Israel Ramos, a chief in the TLC's enforcement division, according to a Nov. 6, 2013, tribunal decision in which Judge Patricia Cardoso dismissed the illegal cab summons against Feliz.
Feliz was sitting in his black Mercury Marquis parked near an NYPD transit station at the Broadway Junction subway stop when Ramos, acting alone, approached his car and asked for a lift. The decision says that Feliz testified that he told the chief he wasn't a livery service.
Ramos, who had on a bulletproof vest and a TLC badge draped around his neck, then opened up Feliz's front passenger door and got in, demanding a ride, according to the account in the decision.
Because of the chief's appearance and the proximity to the NYPD station, Feliz believed he was a police officer and "agreed to drive him as a favor," the decision says. But as Feliz drove with the chief, he began to doubt the passenger was an NYPD officer.
"When they arrived [at the drop-off location], the chief attempted to take the car keys and the driver fought him, believing that this was turning into a carjacking," the decision says. Feliz was eventually arrested.
The chief, who didn't appear at the tribunal hearing, ordered inspector John DiConstanza to issue the summonses, even though the inspector did not see the chief exit the car. The chief told the inspector that the fare for the ride had not been determined — a key element for issuing an illegal summons.
DiConstanza testified at the hearing that he could not recall whether the chief wore a bulletproof vest and stated that the "operation was done alone by the chief without any back-up."
TLC spokesman Allan Fromberg said agency inspectors approached Feliz for a hail after the NYPD made a complaint call about a black Mercury Marquis that was continually soliciting livery customers near Broadway Junction.
Fromberg also noted that the majority of the summonses and seizures DNAinfo has documented occurred from late 2012 to early 2014, which preceded the appointment of Meera Joshi as TLC's current commissioner.
He said on May 7, shortly after Joshi took office, she initiated a review of the agency's Uniformed Services Bureau, which includes inspectors.
"The review is well underway, and once complete, the comprehensive findings and recommendations will be presented to Commissioner Joshi," he said.
Joshi, who previously served as the TLC's general counsel, has also mandated refresher trainings on seizure protocol for inspectors and management, Fromberg said. In addition, she has piloted the addition of dashboard cameras "in a number of its enforcement vehicles, and has recently ordered the installation of additional cameras to augment the program," Fromberg said.
Sources said that while many inspectors welcome the review, they still fear retaliation for not making enough vehicle seizures.
“They threaten you with a screwed-up shift,” a source said. “They screw with your sleeping schedule.”
“There's a lot of verbal pressure. If you don't [get high vehicle seizure numbers], you're given partners you don't want to be with,” another source said. “They threaten to put you on the overnight shift. Some people have children, some people have wives who are sick.”
Kaeckmeister said that TLC Assistant Commissioner Jeff Hunt also once gave a speech at his roll call stating that he wanted to ask the commissioner for raises for inspectors but rookies had been outpacing veterans in their vehicle seizure rates.
“Therefore, he couldn’t justify going to the commissioner and asking for them,” Kaeckmeister said.
Kaeckmeister said he reached out to the city’s Department of Investigation a number of times last year about his concerns. He said he finally met with investigators in person earlier this year, but has not heard whether they’re looking into his allegations.
DOI spokeswoman Diane Struzzi declined to comment on if her agency was conducting an investigation but said, “We are aware of the matter.”
Fromberg said Kaeckmeister’s allegations are currently a matter of an agency investigation.
“I can say we have seen no evidence whatsoever to suggest that officers’ shifts have in any way been subject to their performance in the manner alleged,” Fromberg said.
He also denied that the agency imposes quotas on its inspectors.
“To the extent that enforcement staff is actively encouraged to be observant and productive in the field, any interpretation that this constitutes a quota is not only untrue, but it belies a lack of understanding of the dynamics of any enforcement agency,” Fromberg said.
Gregory Floyd, the president of the inspectors’ union, Local 237, also said that many of the improper seizures happened occurred before Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration took office on January 1.
“There are, however, some holdovers in management who had pressured TLC inspectors into making those seizures,” Floyd said. “Joshi is currently conducting an investigation into this improper practice and we await her findings.”
Like Kaeckmeister, many recruits join the TLC's inspector ranks to gain experience for another law enforcement job. While the NYPD candidates need 60 college course credits, the TLC has easier requirements. Its recruits only need to hold a high school diploma and to pass a city exam and a basic psychological evaluation.
Recruits receive about three months of training, but sources said that they receive very little tactical training to keep them safe during car stops.
“There’s three months of training. About two and a half of it is learning how to write summonses because summonses are a moneymaker,” a source said.
There are roughly 170 enforcement inspectors. They wear badges and bulletproof vests. While they can make arrests, they can’t carry guns — only pepper spray and a baton.
Sources said the intense pressure to make seizures and write summonses places inspectors in potential danger and leads to a high turnover rate.
"As long as [the TLC] gets their precious numbers, they don't care how they got them and if anyone gets hurt getting them the numbers," a source said.
Fromberg said that the TLC believes the “current training regimen and curriculum are strong.”
“It is a work in progress that is constantly undergoing evaluation for improvement based on input and experience, as well as changes within our regulated industries,” he said.
As for Kaeckmeister, he has given up on a career in law enforcement and is now pursuing a master's degree in divinity and hopes to become a chaplain.
In a 12-page statement he submitted to the DOI last year, he summed up his frustration with the TLC.
"I wanted an entry-level law enforcement position and to help people," he wrote. "However, within a few weeks of starting actually working with the TLC, I can see that the TLC doesn’t offer any real value to the public and the enforcement section of it is more or less just a corrupt money-making scam for the city."